The Word of God: Reading the Bible, a practical guide (5/5)
This is the fifth post in a five part series considering what the Bible teaches about itself. The previous posts in this series are 1. How Not to Read the Bible, 2. How to Read the Bible, part 1, 3. How to Read the Bible, part 2 and 4. How the Bible Reads Us.
In this five part series we have considered the nature of Scripture, that it is God-breathed, true, reliable and helpful, and the authority of Scripture over our lives as believers.
But how, practically speaking, should we read Scripture? Are there any principles, tools or guides which can help us in our study of the Word of God?
Firstly, we will, consider principles for sound Bible study and begin by asking how we should read Scripture,
- Regularly. Before we begin to think about tools and guides to help us in our study of Scripture, we must remind ourselves that the Bible itself must be the focus of our study, our searching and our contemplation. Our generation is blessed with an abundance of resources in both print and online and it is easy to spend much time reading about the Bible and little time actually reading the Bible.
It is important that all believers spend time regularly reading and studying the Word of God. Through Scripture we come to learn about God, we come to know God and, in His Word, we come to see all He intends for His people. Through His Word we are transformed increasingly into the likeness of His Son. The regular and careful study of Scripture is not optional for believers.
I, personally, find it helpful to have a specific time of the day set aside to study Scripture and pray. The quietest time for me, is early in the morning while Caroline and Gideon are still in bed.
- Diligently. The Bible is most easily read and more easily understood when our reading is properly structured. Although Bible reading plans (e.g. Word for the Day, etc.) and devotionals (e.g. My Utmost for His Highest, Morning and Evening, etc.) can be very helpful they are not intended to be a substitute for regular time reading and diligently studying the Word of God.
In my view, the best way to read and study Scripture is to take a book at a time (I tend to alternate between an Old Testament and then a New Testament book). It might be that you set a couple of months to one side to carefully study and pray through a particular book. If you are new to serious reading and Bible study and attend Firwood Church, you might find it helpful to coordinate your reading with the evening sermon series (as we tend to work through books of the Bible). We are currently reaching the end of a series on Colossians and will be moving into Ecclesiastes over the coming weeks.
- Prayerfully. As we have already considered in this series, a correct understanding of Scripture relies upon supernatural revelation (1 Corinthians 2:13-16). Our reading and study of Scripture must, therefore, be preceded, accompanied and followed by prayer. We pray that we might understand, that we might see and that we might hear from Him. We pray for spiritual wisdom and strength to apply what we read to our lives.
- Carefully. If we are not careful in our reading it may lead to a misreading of Scripture. It is helpful, therefore, to ask ourselves the four following questions each time we read,
- What does the text mean? It is important that we understand what the text is actually saying. For difficult and densely structure passages, it can be useful to break the passage down and think deeply through the text a sentence at a time (it might, therefore, take us a few days, or even weeks, to think and pray through such a paragraph). This is particularly the case with some of the expository books of the Bible (e.g. the New Testament Epistles). It can be useful to ask ourselves, what does the writer mean by this? Why does the writer follow that sentence with this? How does the meaning of this sentence relate to the preceding sentence and the paragraph as a whole (Dr John Piper explains how to study the text of Scripture by thinking deeply around each proposition, to watch, click here)?
- What is the context of this text? It is important to read each text in the context of the passage, in the context of the book (which is why it is useful to study a book at a time) and in the context of the whole of Scripture.
Whilst devotionals and daily reading plans are helpful, it is easy, if we are not careful, to remove the text from its context. The danger with such a practice is twofold. Firstly, removing the text from its context can lead to a misunderstanding of the text itself. The meaning of each text is determined by its context.
Consider, for example, this often (mis)quoted text,
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:20)
How often have you heard this text used as a preface to a prayer meeting? How often have you heard this text used to encourage a congregation when numbers are particularly low on a given Sunday? But is this what the text actually means?
Well, the answer is both yes and no.
We are confident that where believers are, Jesus is there also. We are confident that when we pray, He listens. But is this what this text actually means? When we read in context we must, most certainly, conclude not. The passage itself addresses church discipline.
How do we deal with someone who professes to be a Christian and yet continues to live in rebellion and refuses to repent? Jesus says that the church should exercise discipline over such a person. The promise is, therefore, that when two or three believers come together and determine to exercise church discipline in love and in accordance with Scripture, we can be confident that Jesus stands with us (Matthew 18:15-20).
Every text has a context and the context helps us determine the correct meaning of the passage.
Reading and studying complete passages and books of the Bible helps us to have a full understanding of what God is telling us and equips us deal with unfamiliar, obscure and even difficult texts.
- How does Scripture help us understand this text? The Bible is unlike any other book in that it is self-interpreting. We use Scripture to interpret Scripture. And so, if we want to understand the creation account in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2, we might turn to the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 102:25-28, 136:4-9, 147) or we might turn to John Chapter 1 and understand that ‘all things were made through [Jesus]’ (John 1:3).
As our knowledge of Scripture increases, by the grace of God, our understanding of Scripture will also increase.
- How does the text help me see Jesus more clearly? We began this series by pondering the truth that all Scripture points towards, explains and/or illuminates Christ Jesus. He is the hero of the Great Salvation Story and he is the end of all faithful Bible Study. It is important, therefore, then when we read any passage of Scripture we ask ourselves the big question, ‘Where is Jesus in this?’
In the New Testament, Jesus is mentioned on every page, whereas, in the Old Testament, the name ‘Jesus’ is never mentioned.
We see the pre-incarnate Son of God in the Old Testament in what theologians describe as Christophanies. In Isaiah Chapter 6, the prophet enters the temple and is sees the Lord, the pre-incarnate Jesus, ‘sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up’ (Isaiah 6:1-3).
We see Jesus in the Old Testament when we read about the Angel of the Lord. When Moses is in the desert and sees a bush that burns and yet does not burn up, it is Jesus who appears to him from amidst the flames (Exodus 3:2).
We find Jesus in the Old Testament by reading Scripture in the context of the big story of the Bible which is that of creation / fall / redemption / restoration.
When we read about the Exodus and the Israelites painting the sacrificial blood on their doorposts so that the angel of death will pass over, we see the foreshadowing of what Jesus will achieve on the cross.
The Law and Old Testament sacrificial system looks towards and anticipates Jesus’ ultimate and final sacrifice on the cross.
Jesus is the true and better temple, the perfect meeting place between God and man (John 2:19).
As we understand the big storyline of the Bible and as we understand that He is the hero of this great story, we find Jesus on every page.
- How do I apply the text? For the believer, the study of Scripture is not an abstract intellectual exercise. Scripture is meant to be lived out. Reading the text prayerfully and carefully invariably leads us to ask how we should live in the light of God’s Word. Study without application is profitless. James exhorts believers to be doers of the word (James 1:22)
Furthermore, Scripture also has much to say about how believers should approach the Bible,
- Scripture should be memorised. When we speak about memorising Scripture, many of us will think back to Sunday school and assume that such a discipline is better left to children. The Psalmist, however, repeatedly celebrates the truth that Scripture is to be remembered, the effects of which are astounding,
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)
The memorisation of Scripture aids us in evangelism (we are able to explain the Gospel specifically and accurately), but also helps us in our personal walk. When Scripture is memorised we will be better prepared to discern God’s will in particular circumstances as we bring the Word of God to mind. This is what the Psalmist means when he writes that Scripture operates like a lamp illuminating his path (Psalm 119:105) and as a protector guarding his way (Psalm 119:9).
- Scripture should be pondered deeply. The Psalms also encourage believers to meditate on Scripture (Psalm 119:15). To meditate on Scripture is more than memorisation. When we meditate on God’s Word we think deeply around the text, marvelling at the truth of God’s Word, allowing the words to penetrate us deeply, convicting us of sin and illuminating us as to the truth of who God is.
As we meditate and think deeply on the Word of God, the Holy Spirit causes the truth of Scripture to cut us deeply that we might become more like Jesus Christ.
- Scripture should be declared. The Psalmist writes,
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth. (Psalm 119:13)
Scripture is something that should be celebrated, declared and discussed wherever and whenever believers meet together. How often (outside Bible studies) do we share with one another the things we have read and studied during the week?
Such conversation regarding Scripture encourages, instructs, exhorts and leads us into praise. People consumed by the Word of God will instinctively speak out the truth of Scripture.
This is why Paul exhorts believers to address one another with ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5:19).
There are also practical tools that can aid us in our study of Scripture.
- Use a good translation. It may seem obvious, but the most important thing is to get hold of a Bible which is both accurate and readable.
The Bible was written in languages other than English (the Old Testament predominantly in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek); this means that unless you are studied in the original languages, you are most likely reading from a translation. There are good translations and bad translations.
The English Standard Version (ESV), the New International Version (NIV) and the New King James Version (NKJV) are all good translations.
There are also different types of translations, word for word translations (e.g. the ESV), thought for thought translation (e.g. the NIV) and paraphrases (e.g. The Message). I would recommend that you get yourself a translation from each of these categories and, when studying a particular passage, you compare versions to ensure that you have understood the text correctly and to gain a fresh perspective on the passage.
I would advise you to use a good word for word translation as your primary Bible for personal study. Firwood Church recommends the ESV.
Biblegateway is a useful online resource and has many different translations available online for free.
- Concordance. A concordance is a valuable tool which enables you to search the bible for a particular word. For example, you might want to look up a particular text, but cannot remember where it is. You would look up one of the key words from the passage and use the concordance to locate the text.
Concordances are also useful for word studies, you may want to look at what the Bible has to say about the Holy Spirit. You can use a concordance to look up and read every occurrence of the word ‘Spirit’. Again, Biblegateway.com has a free word search function which works in a similar way to a concordance. I personally prefer The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (click here to view on Amazon).
- Commentaries. Commentaries comment on the meaning, context and text of Scripture. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of commentaries, technical and expository commentaries. Technical commentaries engage with the text in its original language and tend to be more thorough and academic than expository commentaries. Expository commentaries concentrate on bring out the meaning and application of the text.
Commentaries are hugely helpful in understanding the culture behind the text. There are many references to places, people and practices in the Bible that are not immediately understandable. Commentaries help us understand what is going on both in and behind the text.
There are numerous commentary series available which cover every book of the Bible. I would suggest that you purchase commentaries by writers that you are familiar with or have been recommended to you. John Glynn’s Commentary and Reference Survey is invaluable in identifying the best commentaries and reference works available (click here to view on Amazon).
There are some single volume commentaries available which cover the entire Bible, the best known of which is Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Henry’s commentary does have its weaknesses (this commentary is old and constrained by the space available in a single volume work), but is a useful starting point and is relatively inexpensive.
Jesus prayer for believers is that the Father would, ‘Sanctify [us] in the truth’, Jesus then goes on to add that the Word of God is truth.
The reading and studying of Scripture is fundamental to our sanctification as believers. If we are to be a people of truth who shine forth the light of Christ, we must be a people who inhabit the Word of God.
To inhabit the Word of God, we must firstly take Scripture seriously. The call is to read diligently, to study carefully and to ponder the truth of His Word deeply. As we do so we will draw closer to Him and our lives will never be the same.